The streets of Alfama were packed with bodies. Street foods were being cooked and beer sold at intervals of every ten paces. Yellows and oranges emanated from the streetlights, illuminating the Moorish architectures. They walked, the two of them.
‘How long are you in town for?’
‘Just under a week’, she said.
‘To finish some work’, she replied.
‘Its strange, seeing you’, he said. ‘I couldn’t believe it at first.’
They walked past a man grilling sardines and smiling glassy eyed at them as they went by.
‘I can believe anything when it comes to you Marcus.’
They stopped and he bought two bottles of Portuguese beer, passed one to Maria. She swigged from the glass.
‘Does it seem like a long time? ‘
‘Nice shirt’, she said.
‘I’m trying to pinpoint the last time we saw one another.’
‘I like the design.’
She stopped and took another gulp from the bottle.
‘2009?’ She said. ‘In Berlin.’
He frowned and tried to recall.
‘I guess it’s not important’, he said.
They walked, at times having to push through the crowds of people that were out to celebrate on the night of St Anthony. Anthony of Padua, who as the story told it, in 1222 was unexpectedly called to speak from the pulpit with whatever words the spirit should put in his mouth. Who went on to prove to everyone his understanding of scripture and to perform miracles. Tonight the streets of the city improvised themselves in the memory of his voice. Smoke drifted everywhere around them, grills and barbecues glowing with lines of fish cooking. People stood at bars and sold beer and smiled into the night jammed with the drift of bodies. In a narrow alleyway he looked up to see a caged bird, positioned on a windowsill. Its voice intermittently calling out in shrill notes above the sounds of the crowd.
‘Do you know the way?’ She asked, her voice finding its way to him from behind.
‘I don’t think there is a way’, he said craning his neck over his shoulder.
They continued, the brickworks always lit in fiery oranges. Languages ebbing and flowing around him like a tidal wash caught in the labyrinths of Alfama. Despite the time, the crowds were diverse, comprised of children and old people, teenagers and parents. They stopped at a square where a number of revelers wore hats in the shape of large sardines.
‘I don’t have my camera’, he said. ‘How am I going to remember this?’
Maria didn’t reply.
Walking again, the moorish buildings were alive as the fire that preceded the city as it was now known. They lost one another and found one another. Mann was tall enough to see over most peoples heads. He looked for her brown hair. A chance meeting in a foreign city would once have signified romance, he thought. These days business is much closer on hand. Beneath their feet plastic cups and sticky residual alcohol amassed in layers. Music clashed and vied for space. Rock music and Fado, young and old. To call it a palimpsest of sound would be implying some kind of order that was not in actual fact present. Everywhere was red. People leaned out of windows above them as if the streets themselves weren’t full enough on their own.
‘I don’t have my camera’, he said.
Women danced in flowing skirts, the night unleashing the joy in everyone around. This was a celebration of what it meant to be Portuguese. He felt honoured that they were guests.
‘I hate to talk about work on a night like this’, she said.
‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘If I’m not working I’m thinking about it.’
‘The modern world.’
He looked around.
‘Impossible to shake’, he said. ‘But I suppose I left my phone at home for a reason.’
He swigged at his drink and took a deep breath.
‘I know a job is coming. It is always coming. Sometimes it is legitimate, sometimes it is not. Sometimes I have notice, other times I don’t. Its probably best I don’t loosen up too much.’
‘Anything I need to know? Recent happenings?’
‘Same as ever’, he said. ‘Irregularities, leaks, deals to cover up the leaks. Misinformation, disinformation.’
‘Irregularities’, she said.
‘You know what I mean. Its harder and harder to retain confidentiality. This is the same around the world now. Its not like it used to be.’
‘I didn’t have you down as nostalgic.’
‘I suppose I am,’ he said smiling, the drink going to his head in the hot Lisbon night.
They reached a spot in front of the church where they managed to find a place to sit down. The steps were still warm from the days sun.
‘What about you?’ He asked.
Still in academia, she said. Still writing articles about European History for periodicals that only reach the hands of a few specialists. I don’t mind the marginal life.
Maria had specialised in Balkan past. If he ever wanted to know how Transylvanian tradition had forged modern Romanian identities, or whether the breakup of Yugoslavia was attributable to ethnicity or economics, he would know who to ask.
‘Five years’, he said. ‘Flies by’.
She nodded and looked at the profile of his face, yellow in the back street glow.